Jere Lantz once made the mistake of programming George Frideric Handel's "Messiah" the way the composer intended.

"Early on in Rochester, I put it on during Lent," said Lantz, conductor of the Rochester Symphony Orchestra & Chorale. "Nobody came. After that, I decided I'm not going to fight the tradition."

So, in the eight times since then, including this weekend, that the orchestra had scheduled "Messiah," it's been during the Christmas season. And audiences have, of course, come in droves to hear what is now regarded as one of the classics of the holiday season.

"I've never tired of it," Lantz said. "It's eternally refreshing."

"Messiah" could be ever more refreshing this year, since the orchestra last presented Handel's masterpiece in 2011. A program of contemporary and traditional holiday music has become popular in the interim.

However, "Messiah" is being brought back this year, Lantz said, to celebrate the orchestra's 100th anniversary season.

"We decided since it's our centennial year, we should do something that's a milestone," he said.

"Messiah" is certainly a musical milestone, having been debuted during the Easter season of 1742 in Dublin. Ironically, early performances, including in London, were greeted with barely suppressed yawns.

"It was ho-hum in London," Lantz said.

Then Handel got the idea of producing it as an annual fundraising event for an orphanage. Gradually, “Messiah” started to gain in popularity -- but as a work performed at Christmas time.

 “As soon as it came to the United States in 1820s, it was a huge success,” Lantz said.

The Lenten angle made sense to Handel. He was composing at a time when opera, his favorite genre, was not allowed to be performed during the weeks leading up to Easter. For that season of the year, Handel composed oratorios, with “Messiah,”  which he reportedly wrote in 24 days, being the prime example.

Eventually, Handel, who was born in Germany, became a citizen of England.

This weekend's performances will feature the orchestra's 90-voice chorale and four guest soloists. "It's the biggest chorale we've ever had," Lantz said. "They'll be powerful."

 

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